“Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.”
1 John 3:18
I am a tear-stained wreck of a woman lately. Reading about food allergy-related deaths always breaks my heart. How could it not? Losing children is always tragic and confusing, but for me–for us–reading reports of children who died after eating a slice of cake contaminated with nuts at a family gathering, or who were served a grilled cheese at day care–these hit close to home, so I grieve. Those losses could have been our losses. Fear tries to pry my heart wide open and tempts me to believe our food allergy kids are next.
Maybe reading these stories were too hard on my tender heart still recovering from the trauma of feeling like we almost lost Emery a few weeks ago. Granted, the Epi Pen did its job and Emery is perfectly healthy in the aftermath of that ordeal, but in those tense moments when his floppy, swollen body failed to respond to us, panic saw an opportunity to slip right in, convincing me to live in a constant state of fear.
I know I am not alone in this fight against fear: 5.9 million children in the US have food allergies, so clearly millions of other moms face that same fight every day, and let me tell you: fear is a vexing foe indeed. You know its true, because dads deal with it too. And grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends and teachers–goodness, the teachers. 5.9 million kids translates to one in 13 kids, which means roughly two kids in every classroom across America brings a food allergy to school with them every day. Moms like me have to stare fear down and tell it to go away even as we watch our kids walk out of our sight and into the care of others.
Fear whispers, You really think they’ll be safe out there? If you can’t even keep your own kids safe, how can you possibly trust anyone else will? I want to keep the kids at home forever and cook everything from scratch and magically all the food allergy threats disappear in the illusion of a homemade utopia that just plain doesn’t exist. Instead, the best I know to do is this: take an honest look at what we do to keep our own food allergy kids safe and figure out what we can do better. And goodness, we can do better.
Remember how we banned peanuts from our house after Mia’s diagnosis? Somehow Emery’s allergies haven’t carried the same weight around here, not even in the aftermath of administering the Epi Pen or the subsequent trips to the ER. I’m not really sure why, other than peanuts are easier to avoid, and we don’t miss them nearly as much. Dairy is far trickier (especially since cheese is the one food that Mia will eagerly eat) because unlike peanuts, it is a ubiquitous pantry standby. Plus, we miss it when it’s gone. We eat cheese and drink milk and top our tacos with sour cream while a little boy with a severe allergy to the stuff watches, all while assuring him he doesn’t want any dumb old sour cream because it would make him sick– which I imagine is nothing short of confusing to a not-quite-three year old boy with a deep sense of justice.
To be clear, we are not lackadaisical about Emery’s dairy allergy. We learned how to swap out dairy ingredients for non-dairy alternatives; we make meals that are dairy free; we keep dairy ingredients out of Emery’s reach; and we have rules about when and where the girls are allowed to enjoy dairy products; and we make sure foods are free from all-the-allergies on big days like Christmas (like Katz donuts for breakfast!)–but perhaps we are not as strict as we ought to be. We do not let peanuts or sunflower seeds or gluten into our kitchen (except for a few gluten-full cracker varieties for the Goobies), but we continue to allow milk products into our home despite the glaring fact that Emery has suffered allergic reactions and been rushed to the ER three times because of ingesting dairy (first milk; next whey; and then cheese). He’s been poked with the Epi Pen twice; spent days upon days hyped up and completely unlike himself as a result of steroids that ward of rebound reactions, pumped full of Benadryl countless times for additional minor incidents, and been subjected to disappointment every single day, watching his sisters eat cheese and begging to have some for himself only to be denied time and time again.
The obvious answer is ban all dairy from our home. Why is it so hard to do that? We tell Mia peanuts could cost her her life and our actions (rules, procedures, preparedness) show her we mean business. As a result, peanuts are not allowed in our home, period. But what about dairy? Love makes us say, “Sorry buddy, you can’t have sour cream on your taco because it will make you very sick,” but those words don’t mean anything to a preschooler who shouts “No fair!” and pouts.
1 John 3:18 tells me words are not enough, and that action infuses words with meaning. Without action, words are empty. Clearing out the kitchen of offending foods and eating dairy free in front of the boy would be far more loving than eating the stuff in front of him. Plus, choosing to forego the stuff will help Emery understand the severity of his allergy and assure him of the security of our love (wouldn’t it?) Keeping the sour cream off the table and out of our home communicates love far more than simply saying “No sour cream for you, bud” as we dollop the stuff on our own tortillas.
I can make my peace with foregoing sour cream on taco night, and I imagine you and the girls could do the same. It’s the cheese that poses the biggest problem around here. What on God’s good earth would Mia eat if we cease to allow dairy in the house? Then again, what awful fate might Emery suffer if we continue to keep it around?
The good news is this: in the nearly three years since Emery first started showing signs of his allergy, we have built an arsenal of delicious dairy free alternatives that help us make everyone around our table happy. This is a big deal because while dairy free products are not hard to find, finding delicious ones is far more difficult. What I love lately, though, are dairy free alternatives that actually make the Goobies cheer–all three of them.
For example, the So Delicious brand is my hero because, true to its name, their products are actually really yummy. The Goobies cheer when you announce there’s ice cream for dessert, which happens on a fairly regular basis around here. (We do our best to keep these kids feeling normal, and darn it if a scoop of chocolate coconut milk ice cream helps them feel like regular kids? So be it.) Ditto for their take on non-dairy whipped topping CocoWhip, a treat that redeemed the idea of non-dairy whipped topping in my book because not only is it truly non-dairy (Cool Whip is not non-dairy!), it is also made of better ingredients than its dairy-laden competitor. Also, Emery is pretty smitten with their lunch box size Chocolate Coconut milk boxes, which he’s lovingly dubbed monkey juice. Everyone around here likes it, actually–a triple win!
Maybe the biggest win in our quest toward a more dairy free household is Follow Your Heart vegan cheese, which gives creamy dreamy comfort food a chance to grace our table again. Before we discovered it, Grandma Teague’s famous Golden Potatoes were relegated to memories of Christmas past, but I’m happy to report Grandma’s Golden Potatoes are back. Even better than the shreds, though, are the American cheese slices that make Daiya brand vegan cheese taste as bad as Mia insists it is (and honestly, we don’t disagree). Follow Your Heart slices make grilled cheese sandwiches that fool even our toughest critic in our house. The sheds and slices both melt fantastically over a pan of hot gluten free elbow noodles too, making a fast and inexpensive (and yummy!) dairy free mac & “cheese” that makes me believe miracles can happen. (I just toss in a handful of cheddar style shreds or a few torn pieces of the American style slices into a hot pan of drained gluten free noodles along with a tablespoon or so of our favorite dairy free butter alternative Earth Balance Buttery Spread and a splash of plain rice milk and stir until smooth.)
Food speaks to the soul, so let’s use words and actions, both. Together they can nourish the body, soothe the spirit and make our kids us feel loved. Serving safe foods that taste delicious is the one of the most loving things I can think to do for our food allergy family. I am thankful for these few dairy free foods that help convince us all that sacrifices don’t have to leave us feeling unsatisfied or left out.